Monday, September 19, 2011

The Does-It-All Motorcycle-ooter

Thirty years ago the average 150cc scooter could run along side cars because the speed limits were lower.  Our highways averaged 55 mph speed limits.  In my home state of Wisconsin the country roads were also 55 mph.   While scooterists generally stayed off expressways, they were perfect for surface streets and country biways.  And we often heard tales of scooter riders cruising lonely state highways far between major metropolitan centers.  Long distance riders who, in our minds back then, were one step away from the two stroke 50cc moped riders who crossed vast tracts of land just to be able to say to themselves that it could be done.  Deep down we were impressed with their daring.  But people who rode scooters more than a hundred miles outside their home bases were considered slightly off.  When the subject of an assumed long distance scooterist came up, we compared their machines to ours.  Mainly for the comfort factor.  How could they do it?  Why would they?  Misunderstood pariahs.

We failed to recognize the logical comparison.  It wasn't anything special to hop on our semi restored late sixties to seventies Japanese standards and pull the same stunts.  Loose groups of riding buddies whose RD400s, Harley Sprints, Suzuki singles and twins (we called em Sushi's back then), Yammies and the ever revered small displacement Hondas who went as far as time allowed.  I rode a two stroke Kawi 250 Enduro myself in those days.

Then we stepped into early adulthood.  Larger bikes replaced smaller bikes.  Money could buy alot in those days.  Or so it seemed.  But it never failed to come up in conversation at some wide gravel shoulder.  We always discussed the roads as we'd once ridden them.  Close to full out, little engines working as hard as they could.  Some of them sucking fuel and oil mix through themselves, trying to create enough power to keep up with the bikes ahead of them.  Rpm's high and loud.  The total rush of going fast on a "slow" bike.

Some of my friends graduated to the eight hundred cc and above class.  Mostly cruisers.  Even I opted for the vintage look with modern reliability.  A Sportster which had finally graduated to belt final drive.  Oh, and the wonderful new overdrive gear.  You'd know it simply as fifth gear.  Fast?  No. Comfortable?  Not too bad really.  But to me that machine was the essence of the unadulterated motorcycle.  I could live with its quirks.  I still have it.

In the quest to gain market share, motorcycles have only grown over the years.  To me they've stepped beyond logical to the point of becoming cartoonish.  The backlash is that scooters have followed suit to some degree.  Or so you might think, but bear with me here.  I'm going to show you something.

The world motorcycle market has a share of buyers who are able to choose something we U.S. buyers cannot have new.  The three hundred to five hundred cc class motorcycle.  Last I checked you could still buy a brand new Honda CB 400cc in other countries.  And the worst part?  They are the natural progression of design we would want to see coming out of that historic past.  But we can't have em.  It's either a 250 road bike or a dual sport, as they're now called.  Although the dualies do meet what I still think is the mid sized dispacement catagory we never should have lost here.  But not a legit road bike with decent accessory choices for road use.  I blame the bean counters.

Find a need, fill a need.  It's a quote from a kids' movie called Robots.  The character is a visionary named Big Weld.  The whole premise of the story line is no matter who you are, (or what you're made of, considering this is a world of machines imbued with human characteristics) you can be the one with the solution to a problem.

Enter the return of the scooter.

Even though Honda never really let go of the scooter market, Honda also never created the same interest in their scooters as they had when they created the ubiquitous "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" catch phrase, back in the sixties.  But another company was primed for the market.  All it had to do was get it's product in front of consumers again.

First of all, the return of Vespa to the United States came at a time when gas prices were increasing.  Parent company Piaggio banked on the market responding well to a sharp little machine with fine fuel mileage and whatever-that-French-phrase-is-which-connotes upscale cool...  And they made it automatic.  People who'd never ridden suddenly had a reason to find out what made motorized two wheeling so great.  They could skip the whole learning to shift shenanigans altogether!  It happened slowly, but it caught on.

From the air cooled 150cc ET, evolved the LX.  From there, Vespa begat the liquid cooled GT 200.  A legitimately tourable scooter.  One which could keep up with expressway traffic without being swallowed by SUV's and busses.  Before long the 200cc grew to a 250cc and became fuel injected.  Now we have the The Vespa GTS 300ie.  And with it, parent company Piaggio has added larger wheeled scooters using the same engines carried within the retro Vespa line.  Look at the Aprilia scooters some time.  They're everything good you remember from the seventies era "mid" displacement motorcycles and they include even more.  No bungy cord necessary.  There's storage under the seat.  There are rear luggage racks.  And rack mounted trunks ar available.  Windshields too.  Best of all, these new scooters retain what made the earliest Vespas so right when they were introduced to Italy on their debut.  Legshields and floorboards.  In other words, weather protection.  Something those venerable small to mid displacement motorcycles of our past never had.

I've always been a believer in the idea that you cannot really instill confidence in a new rider if you teach them to ride on something they don't initially feel confident riding.  And I mean before they get some training.  If a person doesn't look down at what they're on and say, out loud, "You sure this thing isn't too small???" then maybe the instinct they need to have in an emergency may not be their first reaction.  I'll go so far as to say the moment of emergency will be overshadowed by hesitation.  One deer or loose dog.  A veering car.    The rider has to be so confident on the machine that he or she acts before thumbing through the mental rolodex for the right response.  From lane position to seating position and hold.  You just can't wrestle a bike which takes you for the ride rather than the other way around.  Your confidence has to be in your ability to throw the bike any way you need to in an oncoming possible emergency.  In other words, you have to prevent the emergency before it becomes one.

Is the scooter the better small to mid displacement motorcycle?